Red River Recollections
Texas’ northern boundary river weaves through history, culture and geography.
By Russell A. Graves
Red-ribboned rock walls dominate each side of the river bottom. Underfoot, the sand feels powdery, not damp as it should. The driest 10-month span in recorded Texas history has crushed any hope of needed water bringing life to the upper end of the Red River.
In this part of the Texas Panhandle, plains cleave to a shallow draw, the draw becomes a creek, and creeks combine to become a river. The river proper isn’t much more than a ribbon of sand at its origin here in the bottom of the cavernous Palo Duro Canyon. From these meager headwaters, however, the Red River flows easterly for 640 miles through Texas, cutting through an impressive swath of land, culture and history. Along the way, it serves as a boundary — between nations, between states and between cultures.
This country is wild and wide open. As the sun rises, it is so quiet down in the canyon that all I can hear is the sound of the wind sifting through the junipers. Facing east, the journey before me is a daunting one that will help me see the river in a new light.
In southern Armstrong County, Palo Duro Canyon opens wide and eventually succumbs to the red rolling plains of Northwest Texas. As the Red River heads east, its bed widens and the water picks up the color of the surrounding landscape, giving the stream its name.
Aging farmhouses stand as silent sentinels, keeping watch over a patchwork of farm and ranch land. Unlike most of Texas, the western Red River valley has seen a steady depopulation over the last half-century. Those who remain continue to challenge the land to reap the bounty of the Big Country.
“We moved out here in the spring of ’55,” remembers Minnie Lou Bradley, iconic rancher and National Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee. “When I moved out here, it was the height of the 1950s drought, and the Red River was white with the salt that came from the water. Just like it is right now.”
For the past 60 years, Bradley and the Bradley 3 Ranch have been leaders in the American beef industry by adapting to their surroundings and providing thoughtful stewardship to the ranch.
“We went into the pasture to take a look and didn’t see any grass because of the drought,” she recalls. “My soon-to-be father-in-law got down on his knees and dug up some grass. He said, ‘The roots are still alive. I believe this will be a good outfit.’ So we took care of the ranch and it really came back. That’s how good this cattle country is.”
West of the 100th meridian, the river meanders across the Panhandle. As the water crosses the imaginary longitudinal line and heads east, the river separates two states as the southern bank of the river becomes the northern border of Texas. (The river was briefly a national boundary when Texas was a sovereign nation.)
After the Civil War, when the cattle industry helped revive Texas, the boundary waters proved to be a formidable obstacle for cowboys and cattle alike.
“This boundary river on the northern border of Texas was a terror to trail drovers, but on our reaching it, it had shallowed down, the flow of water following several small channels,” writes Andy Adams in his 1903 book The Log of a Cowboy. “But the majestic grandeur of the river was apparent on every hand — with its red, bluff banks, the sediment of its red waters marking the timber along its course, while the driftwood, lodged in trees and high on the banks, indicated what might be expected when she became sportive or angry. That she was merciless was evident, for although this crossing had been in use only a year or two when we forded, yet five graves, one of which was less than ten days made, attested her disregard for human life.”
On a warm June day, I meet historian Jeff Bearden near the banks of the Red River at the old Doan’s Store — precisely the location that Adams writes about. Less than a mile across the prairie, graves lie on private ground where Adams once rode.
“When the war between the states was over, the Texas economy was in ruins and the only thing we had was cattle,” Bearden explains while standing in the shade of the old adobe building. “To recover, Texas sent its cattle north to the markets up the Chisholm Trail and the Great Western Trail. In 19 years, some 6 million head of cattle crossed the river here.”
As we talk, I realize that much of our identity as Texans and the way that others look at us was formed right here on the banks of the river. Bearden agrees.
“The money from those cattle came back to the state and helped Texas recover, and the lore of the cowboy was born,” he says. “While he was once considered a lowly agricultural worker, the great cattle drives that crossed here elevated the cowboy to legendary status.”
Later, I find myself farther downstream on a hill overlooking where the Chisholm Trail crossed the river in Montague County. Unmarked stones jut awkwardly from the earth and stand memorial to more unknown cowboys who died on the trail and were buried along the banks. At the site of the old Red River Station, I stare over the river valley. All is quiet, and I contemplate the fact that unlike most major Texas rivers, no towns are built on the banks. The Brazos has Waco, and the Colorado cuts through Austin. The Guadalupe, Trinity and Rio Grande all have towns on their banks. The Red River, curiously, has none. For reasons I cannot explain, the river, save for Lake Texoma, cuts unabated through open country across northern Texas.
At this point, I am roughly halfway down the river, and as I travel from west to east, the countryside becomes greener, the trees taller and more dense. I’ve lived along the river my entire life — the first half in Fannin County, the second half in Childress County. For nearly two decades I’ve driven up and down the river and have seen the natural changes. I’ve seen cultural changes as well.
Out west, where cattle country and big ranches dominate, Western culture abides. As you head east, that feeling changes. Somewhere around Grayson County, the culture shifts toward a Southern flavor that endures all the way to where the river leaves Texas.
North of Bonham, I take to the river with Ty Fulmer in his airboat. As we skim the water, trees dominate the banks, and although it’s wide, the river feels like Southern backwater. Fulmer knows the river well. He’s built his house out of local materials on a high bluff that overlooks the river.
“I grew up along the river, and we hunted and fished a lot,” he says as we drift powerlessly down the main river channel. “I always liked being here. No matter where I’d go, it seems like the river would always draw me back to it. I don’t ever see me leaving this place.”
Back at the cedar house, his wife, Rita, corroborates.
“You cannot look at the water and trees and not see the beauty,” says the professional gospel singer. “One morning I had to sing at a funeral, and I went down to the river to practice How Great Thou Art. As I started singing the words to the song, it hit me that the river isn’t something that happened. This is a work of God. It’s amazing, and it inspires me.”
From Bonham, I head farther east and fly parts of the river via helicopter. I’ve experienced the river in many ways so far, but from the air is a first.
It’s hard to explain, but from 500 feet in the air, the river doesn’t feel so much like a border as it does when you drive across it by bridge. From the air, I can see why people were drawn to the area. It is simply beautiful.
Just a few miles downriver, I spot the location and later drive to where people once crossed the river before there was even a Texas. At the Jonesboro Crossing lies perhaps the oldest Anglo grave in the state. This is the place where scores of settlers crossed into the new, untamed territory — including Sam Houston.
Just past Jonesboro, Jim Clark V reminisces about tales of pre-independence Texas when his great-great-great-grandfather hosted Houston in his home as he passed through the area. From the front porch of his old farmhouse that’s spitting distance from the river, Clark (in his early 70s) talks about life along the river and how, except for just a few years when he lived only a short distance away, he’s lived in the same house since he was born. His family is entrenched in the area — James Clark I established the town of Clarksville in 1833.
Red River County eastward, by all accounts, is as much Old South as the Mississippi River Valley is. Stately Southern Victorian homes line streets in all the little towns, and there’s an antebellum feel to the area.
From the 1830s to the Civil War, steamboat freighters brought goods up from New Orleans and took back with them cotton and timber (still a staple of the area’s economy). The small communities that dot the backwoods of the Northeast Texas Red River country hearken to a time when the population was less centralized and more agrarian. Enclaves of citizens whose family histories run deep in the region still reside here, and numerous tiny villages are tucked neatly away in the woods. Their makeup is much the same — a smattering of houses, a cemetery and a tidy little church.
Passing by one of the churches, I see a car parked outside late on a Wednesday afternoon, so I walk in. Turning on the window unit air conditioners was Leonard Simington, a deacon for the Slate Rock Baptist Church. As a boy, I used to attend a church like this when I would visit my grandfather. Simington’s affability makes me feel right at home.
“I grew up around here,” he says genially as he shuffles from the fellowship hall to the sanctuary, preparing for the Wednesday evening prayer meetings. The sanctuary can’t be more than about 1,200 square feet, but Leonard is proud of his church home. “I left for West Texas for a while, but I always knew I wanted to come back. The people here are special, and this place is special. I guess I just couldn’t stay away.”
His sentiments have been echoed throughout my journey. Red River people have a strong sense of place and identify themselves closely with the region and its citizens.
I finish my journey where Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma meet at the Red. The river snakes back and forth so extremely, it seems as if the river is one storm away from straightening its channel and leaving oxbow lakes in its aftermath. I look north toward Oklahoma and think of my new friend Wildwood Dean Price.
Price is an artist, author and folklorist who floated the Red River across most of North Texas and wrote a book about his journey, River of Dreams. His father was a commercial fisherman on the river back in the 1940s, so Price learned to love the watercourse from a young age.
At one time, he even made folk art furniture for Neiman-Marcus and gathered his materials from the banks of the river. He went on his canoe trip through these switchbacks a decade ago, bringing a lifelong dream of his full circle.
“Dad used to tell me that we would make a float trip from the head to the tail of the Red River,” he says, sitting in front of a wall of drying onions freshly pulled from his garden. “I think that was just a way to motivate me to graduate high school. Once I was out of school, I really didn’t want to make a trip; I wanted to go to the city.”
Price says that he moved to Dallas in 1959 but was never happy living in the city and wanted to move back. “When I moved back to the river in 1979 I took odd jobs and was looking for ways to make a living off the water,” he says.
After a trip to a folklife festival in Dallas, he connected with some retail buyers and began to make furniture and decorations from willows and dogwoods that he harvested from the riverbank.
“The Red River enabled me to make a living and feed my family,” he says. “I owe a lot to the Red River.”